Singalong or sellout?

by Cate Masters

Recently, a commercial caught my interest. Believe me, this doesn’t happen often. Not because of the product, but the music. It saddened me because it was a musician I admired, and my first reaction was: Noooooo! Not Ray LaMontagne! Selling out? I love his song Trouble, but now will forever associate it with the image of a dog. Travelers Insurance used it to illustrate their ad.

But is it really selling out? Other commercials have led me to find new artists I’d never heard of. When Volkswagen used a haunting melody in their ads years ago, it drove me crazy. I loved that song! But I had no idea who sang it until a friend happened to lend me a CD by Nick Drake. “Pink Moon” was the Volkswagen song, and I could finally hear more than 30 seconds’ worth. Since then, I’ve been able to forget (or nearly) the VW link, and appreciate the song for itself. Though he’d long since passed away, Nick Drake found many new fans thanks to that commercial. Which, by the way, invokes the song very well. Don’t you think?

Others (at least one, anyway) have had that same thought, and one even compiled this list of songs VW used in their commercials. I had no idea it was so extensive. Though some contain barely snippets of songs, as this one (though it’s very funny):

As is this VW one:

An article on CNBC noted that auto makers in particular like to use rock music because “As soon as you hear it, it puts an instant image in your head. And puts it in an instant context.” Which is why, for music lovers, it can really damage the “instant image” delivered whenever they hear that particular song – it’s the wrong context.

But is it really a horrible thing? Some bands such as R.E.M. refuse to lend their music to market a product, and I respect that. But if Radio Shack hadn’t played The Raveonette’s The Christmas Song, I might never have heard of them either.

Having grown up with the music of The Beatles, I became possibly the youngest Beatlemaniac at age 4. So when their songs appear in ads, it angers me. Curse you, Michael Jackson, for buying the Fab Four’s music catalog! It seemed an underhanded deal at the time, because MJ knew Paul wanted to buy it. So to lose control of his own work irritated me. I’ll probably never forgive Michael for selling out, especially when it wasn’t truly his to sell. George Harrison discusses use of their songs here. Though the following commercial was pretty cool to watch and obviously applied to the product (and is this what the game is like, does anyone know? It would be one game I’d love to play, if so!):

The Beatles: Rock Band - Television Commercial - More amazing videos are a click away

Over the years, commercials have applied songs to their products that seem head-scratchers. Slate devoted a column to it, and came up with some great examples.

This blogger is clearly offended by the practice. Squidoo has lots more videos, some clever, some not so much.

For me, then, it depends whether I have an emotional attachment to the song already. What's your have a take on it? Is a musician “selling out” if s/he allows songs to market a product? Or should the music remain music in its purest form? Does it strike a visceral chord in you to hear a favorite song selling something? Any that made you want to pull an Elvis and shoot the TV? Run from the room screaming? Or do you simply hum along?

Cate Masters writes fantasy/dark fantasy, historical, contemporary and speculative fiction, described by reviewers as “so compelling I I did not want to put it down,” “such romantic tales that really touch your soul,” “filled with action scenes which made it a riveting story,” and “the author weaves a great tale with a creative way of using words that makes the story refreshing to read.” Visit Cate online at, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. I think you're right - it's about having an emotional attachment to a song and the product that's using it. I love your comment about "pulling an Elvis and shoot the TV" - very funny!

    When I think of commercials and music I do enjoy, I think of United Air lines using "Rhapsody in Blue" as their theme song. Back when I lived in San Francisco, which is a big United hub, I used to fly all over the place and every time I heard that song, I was excited and ready to go. lol! So when I hear that song today, I recall fond memories of those exciting times.

  2. Cate,

    That was an awesome article and I love the use of embedded video to assist in what you wanted to say.

    Great job!

  3. I've discovered several artists via commercials. Jet, Black Eyed Peas, and others. (No, I don't spend a lot of time in the music scene. *LOL*)

    Lesli Richardson. (aka Tymber Dalton)

  4. Interesting, Kathy. Certain songs trigger specific memories for me, too, like a soundtrack for my life. Nice that Rhapsody in Blue makes you recall those wonderful times.

  5. Hey Trent! Glad you enjoyed the videos. I could spend way too much time on YouTube. :)

  6. Hi Leslie, isn't it cool to find new bands though? Especially bands that aren't necessarily mainstream, and not always a genre I might listen to otherwise. WXPN is great for that, btw.

  7. Cate- terrific article! I love the Mr. Roboto ad! I don't think it's selling out - esp. if it's a new/emerging artist. Similar to making your music available to TV shows. While it's not a commercial - the shows have a vested interested making money as do movies - so I don't see anything wrong in it. And I agree with you - I've discovered bands I'd never heard of because of it - in Canada we also have Can Con - so lots of great Can music on commercials as well. Who ever has the job of picking the music for the ads is the luckiest guy/gal around! ;) I want that job. Cheers!

  8. That would be a cool job to pick the music for commercials! I never heard of Can Con - what is that?
    I loved the Mr. Roboto ad too. Wasn't much of a fan of the song, but the marketer made great use of it. I guess it's true that however new artists can get their music out there is good for them. But the Ray LaMontagne song did make me sad. I don't want to think of a dog when I hear it!

  9. Hey Cate - Can Con is short for Canadian content - many Can ads use Canadian songs as well. ;)

  10. Hey Cate

    Loved the article, and the videos were fun!

    I agree with you though - some music I heard through ads (such as Black Eyed Peas) and I'd come to associate it with the ad/image of it, and then I got to watch the real music video and that so didn't fit! Can you insert the sound of DJ scratching a disc in a really awakward rewind way? That's what it does to me!


  11. Interesting, Jojo. Thanks!

    Hey Z! Thanks for the chuckle. It would make a good ad!

  12. I also love your 'pulling an Elvis' - LOL! I wanted to do that at the office today during all the computer upgrades.

    I have very fond memories of a 40's hit song used by a phone company for long distance - 'Anytime' - and the commercial even made me teary. Whenever I hear the song today, I think about the commercial.

  13. Ugh, computer upgrades can be painful! Hope it's finished and needs no tweaks.
    Some marketers really know how to use songs to great effect. They're almost artists in their own right.

  14. I don't have a problem with the "sell out" aspect, but maybe because I don't make the connection between the music and the ad. The only time I do make the connection is when it's a jingle used over and over in different ads. And even then I might not.

  15. It really is a touchy subject, isn't it? Selling products or selling a show, since often music is grafted in specifically to highlight a particular scene. We've caught snippets of songs on shows and scribbled down what lyrics we could catch in order to look it up later.

    Now with commercials, I tend to think if a new artist sells a song to market a brand, that's his or her (or their) business. They're trying to break into a bigger market and it's really no different than a person writing a jingle to sell. Don't we all deserve a break today? *grin*

    On the other hand, if an artist is established enough that they have a kazillion bucks, it does feel rather like a sellout. Though even there I have to say each circumstance is unique. What if they're involved with a product they like or want to be linked with? Last night I paused in my zipping-past-commercial mode because I caught a glimpse of Eric Clapton. HUH? So I backed up and he was demonstraing an app for a cell-phone that seemed to suggest you could bring up a guitar and strum chords! My husband and I were astonished. WTF? Gotta check THAT out.

    When it truly burns me up is when the music was bought by someone else, like the Beatles catalog (that Dick James grabbed from the boys too inexperienced to know better) which Michael Jackson bought (Yes, I curse him for that too. How rude!!). Yikes.

    Then I remember the songs from my childhood. Remember, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?" *laughs*

    Intriguing and thought-provoking, Cate!


    PS, I watched a special about the Beatles Rock Band and spoke to a friend who plays it with her kids. The verdict is YES, it does seem incredibly cool. They worked very hard to make the graphics true-to-life and of course, it's the Beatles!

    I've mentioned it to my husband a time or two but he always says, "Um, why don't we just pull out the guitars and play the actual songs?"

    Dang men and their logic. ;-P


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